Monday, March 02, 2009

Fast Food Lenten Fasting

Filet-O-FishThis past Friday, I grabbed a couple of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches for lunch, as they were on sale for only $1.29 each. McDonald's does a Friday Filet-O-Fish promotion pretty much every year in connection with the Christian observance of Lent, which started this past Wednesday (Ash Wednesday). Lent lasts for six weeks, starting with Ash Wednesday and continuing on through Easter.

An argument could be made that the Filet-O-Fish owes its very existence to such religious observances. As the story goes, a McDonald's franchise in Cincinnati, Ohio, was suffering declining sales, and it was determined that this decline could be traced to the relatively high number of Catholics living in Cincinnati. Catholic tradition is that believers should not eat meat on Fridays, as an observance of the death of Christ on Good Friday. In current practice, this discipline is generally only observed during Lent, but technically speaking, Catholic canon law says that believers should abstain from meat on all Fridays, and this certainly seemed to be the case in Cincinnati, where Lou Groen, who created the Filet-O-Fish, used to operate the McDonald's in question. This restriction is often referred to as a "fast," but it must be understood that this "fast" is not an abstinence from food in general, but rather a disciplined diet.

What I've never quite understood about this practice (being non-Catholic) is how fish is apparently exempt from this "meat" rule. To my thinking, fish is meat. Why is animal flesh only considered meat if it's not seafood (at least one source I've found suggests the distinction is between warm- and cold-blooded animals, but I've never heard it suggested that reptile or amphibian meat is considered okay. Perhaps this stems from Jewish kosher rules, which would have forbade them, but Christians are generally understood to not be bound by those...)?

I've not been able to discover a definitive answer to this question, but found at least one theory that I find intriguing. The idea is, in most of the world (certainly in ancient times, but still almost universal except for America), the flesh of land animals is considered an expensive luxury. Fish, on the other hand, is plentiful in many areas (this certainly seemed to be true of the first-century Palestine of the New Testament), and was thus not considered a luxury. The abstinence rule was meant to be an abstinence from luxurious eating.

At least one other source I've found suggests that the purpose of the fast is not to "give up" or "sacrifice" luxury, per se. Rather, the idea is to partake in a discipline. To do something one would not ordinarily do. Something that requires effort. This effort, it is argued, is to remind one of the work of God (and of Jesus Christ in particular) on behalf of God's people. This is especially important during the Lenten season.

As a Presbyterian, I've grown up aware of Lent, and my family always went to worship services on Wednesday nights throughout the Lenten season. However, I've found in more recent years that a lot of Lenten tradition is somewhat alien to Presbyterians. We certainly don't have the same tradition of fasting or self-sacrifice as other Christians might have. We don't prohibit it, it just hasn't been emphasized as much, historically.

At the church I currently attend, there is an effort to rediscover some of these traditions in a measured way. This seems to be true among Christians elsewhere, as well. Given the current economy, I admit that eating a Filet-O-Fish was encouraged more by the appeal of saving money than it was by a larger goal toward Lenten discipline. However, it seems to me that such promotions, coupled with an increasing awareness of the history of Lenten traditions, could well help some people learn more about God. I'll be curious to see God's work in my life and in the lives of those around me during the next six weeks.

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  1. Brian Atwood3/06/2009 8:38 AM

    Something to help clear up why fish is allowed. The flesh of fish is not considered meat.

    The dictionary defines "meat" as: the flesh of an animal

    The dictionary defines flesh as: the muscle and fat of an animal, typically excluding fish and sometimes fowl.

    The church specifies which types of meat we are to abstain from: flesh meats of animals.

  2. Thanks for your comment, but I find I'm left with the same question. The dictionary simply asserts that fish are excluded (with the wiggle-word "typically" no less), but no explanation of why....

  3. Brian,

    Your comment inspired me to do a little more research on my own. The dictionary I use (Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary, 1982 edition) doesn't mention fish, but one of the definitions of "flesh" does say "Meat, esp. that of mammals." This opens up the "poultry is okay" stipulation that you did with the "sometimes fowl" clause in your own definition, and also is consistent with the "cold-blooded is okay" bit I'd referenced in the original article. (But there's still that wiggle-word! "esp." in my case.) The same dictionary's definition of meat gives a "sometimes excluding fish or fowl" exemption. (ARGH! Another wiggle-word!) And I'd still be looking for "why do we define the flesh of these other creatures as different than 'meat'"?

    (And I haven't even gotten to the recursiveness created by the "flesh" definition using the word "meat" while the "meat" definition uses the word "flesh"!)

    All this does bring me back to a side question I brought up in the article: Is it okay to eat reptile or amphibian meat?

  4. The other explanation of Fish is OK during Lent is that Jesus was the Fisher of Men and we do it as a remeberance of him.

  5. Interesting. A biblically based argument, to be sure, but not one I've ever heard before.

  6. All cold blooded meat may be eaten by Catholics on Fridays. This includes meats such as fish and reptiles. Warm blooded meat is forbidden. After Vatican II, the church no longer required you to fast from meat on Friday's, but still required some sort of sacrifice on all Friday's outside of Lent.



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